Saturday, April 20, 2024

RNA vaccine in pipeline to nail BVD 

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With funding in place and covid’s lessons still fresh, AgResearch could be closing in on a solution to costly condition.
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The technology for developing and commercialising covid vaccines and the ability to adopt it for livestock vaccines is moving a step closer with AgResearch’s work on building an RNA vaccine for bovine viral diarrhoea.

As covid continued to swirl around the world two years ago, a little-known benefit for NZ scientists in that year’s budget was the provision of $40 million for investment in RNA vaccination development.

The RNA “fast start” platform has since given AgResearch scientists the opportunity to advance their work on developing an RNA vaccination that could deliver a higher level of efficacy than conventionally developed vaccines against bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD).

Dr Axel Heiser, AgResearch’s chief scientist, is heading up a team taking the research to a proof of concept stage.

Massey University research has estimated that BVD costs NZ farmers about $150 million a year in deaths and lost production. 

It can be extremely hard to diagnose clinically, and herds can be blighted by “shedders” that, despite being outwardly healthy, spread the virus across herd mates, sometimes for years. 

Further complicating matters, embryos can become infected from their mothers.

“The RNA vaccines used against covid interfered with the virus’s spikes that attached to human cells. It is a similar set up with BVD. It has a protein that sits on the virus’s surface, we know it well and can develop a vaccine that puts out antibodies that bind to that protein,” Heiser said.

The beauty of an RNA vaccine for BVD control is also its ability to counter a spectrum of BVD strains, something existing vaccines struggle to do – with NZ strains proving particularly adaptable against those vaccines.

Heiser highlights the streamlined process for designing a BVD RNA vaccine, leading to a rapid progression through vaccine candidate development and accelerating the path to regulatory approval. 

The technology has the potential to shorten vaccine development and registration from 10 years to 5-6 years.

While funding, usually the biggest hurdle for such research, has been locked in, the scientists have some other challenges to work through in coming months.

“This is  proof of concept work at this stage, and if it works, we want to improve the RNA antigen so the nano particles that transfer the vaccination do not require the extreme cold-chain storage that the covid vaccines required.”

AgResearch principal scientist Dr Axel Heiser says in a year researchers should have a proof of concept if the BVD RNA vaccine is possible and might have investor commitment for the next stage of development.

Storage temperatures have to be as low as -80degC, something that made the use of RNA vaccinations against covid difficult in countries like India.

Collaboration with Victoria University researchers will have them working on new particles that do not require cold chain storage.

“There is a lot of IP we can create for NZ in that, but that is beyond this stage of the work.”
Viral livestock diseases represent a world of possibilities for future RNA vaccinations, including rotavirus and even foot and mouth disease. Bacterial diseases could also ultimately have such vaccines, including Mycoplasma bovis. 

Heiser is confident NZ has the capacity to produce a BVD vaccine at scale, while also leveraging off the technology used for covid vaccines, including the same tech to modify RNA and to put it into nano-particles. 

Heiser comes with a proven RNA vaccination pedigree, being involved in early efforts in the late ’90s with the technology in the first clinical trials treating prostate cancer and getting a positive immune response from the vaccination.

He anticipates that in a year’s time the scientists will have proven their proof of concept, and the next stage will involve treating calves with the vaccination.

“And if that works we will probably need four to five years to get registration here in NZ.”

Globally a BVD vaccination would have significant commercial potential with the disease a blight on dairy production in other regions, including parts of Europe.

But in general animal health companies have stepped back from higher risk vaccination development in recent years, and Heiser said this has made the funding for the AgResearch work even more invaluable.

“The companies have become quite risk averse.

“For us to be funded at these early stages means we are producing the data and proof of concept. We are also lucky enough to have an investor interested to be involved between this stage and scaling up.”

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